It’s the kind of thing that’ll make you stop and take a second look — a field planted side-by-side in both cotton and watermelons.
But to southwest Georgia’s William Dillard, it’s much more than just an oddity.
“It’s helping us to cut costs and make more efficient use of our land,” says Dillard, who farms in Tift County, Ga., with his cousin Jamie. “The land doesn’t have to be prepped but once, and with the high cost of diesel, we can get two for one.”
Dillard was the first grower in his county to take a chance on intercropping cotton and melons. That was three years ago, and since then, others have followed suit.
In his first year of inter-cropping, Dillard planted cantaloupes and cotton. He also grows fresh-market peas, frozen-market peas and peanuts.
“Our acreage varies each year. We were down some on cotton acres in 2012, but we usually stick with around 100 acres of watermelons. We’ve also planted fall greens on some of our watermelon land,” he says.
Dillard admits he wasn’t totally convinced about the intercropping system in the beginning.
“Someone actually told us about it, and we thought they were about half crazy. But we saw a field in which the system was being used and we decided to give it a try. We were pretty successful, averaging about 1,240 pounds of lint in that first year, and the economics convinced us give it another try.”
Timing is important in any facet of farming, but doubly so when attempting to intercrop cotton with melons, says Dillard.
Double the worry
“The importance of timing goes double for intercropping, and it’s also double the worry,” he says.
“It’s very time-sensitive, and it stresses the cotton crop some. But we have to concentrate first on our melon crop, and then as soon as we can, we spray them out. In the first year, we grew Phytogen 375 so we’d have the luxury of going in with Roundup. We’re still trying to figure out which cotton variety works best in this system.”
This past season, Dillard intercropped 40 of his 100 acres of melons. “If we didn’t need the land in the fall for small grains, we’d do every acre,” he says.
He’s transplanting his watermelons at about mid-March to early April. “Then, we have to keep a close watch on the growth stage of melons. It’s a time-sensitive thing to try and get right beside the row. In the past we’ve planted the melons on plastic, but we didn’t do that this year just to save ourselves the time and cost.
“We’re on a 6-foot bed with our melons, and we come back with 36-inch row cotton on a six-row pattern. We went back in with Roundup to help take care of any grass problems.
“We don’t start concentrating on the cotton crop until we’re finished with the melons. We have the same scout looking at our melons and cotton, and if he sees something in the cotton that won’t affect the melon crop, we’ll take care of it. Otherwise, we leave it until the melons are out. Once the melons are harvested, we turn our attention to the cotton.”
Dillard’s initial fertilization program is based on the needs of the melon crop. Then, he goes back in and side-dresses cotton just as he normally would.
“We may pull some tissue samples just to see what’s going on with the cotton crop. But when we spray those melons out, we’re right behind them pretty close, side-dressing a little ammonium nitrate, maybe a little K-Mag.
“When I start out, my first priority is the melon crop. After that, we may come back with some foliar feeding or something else to fix any problems.”
Dillard does his layby ahead of time and after planting cotton, he tries to stay out of the field. “Every once in awhile, we see a little damage from harvesting melons, but we try to work with our harvesters to be particular so it doesn’t become an issue.”
Trouble with labor
Dillard — like many Georgia produce farmers — has had trouble finding reliable labor.
“We contracted with someone out of Florida this year to harvest and pack our melons. One reason we didn’t plant cantaloupes this past year was because of the extra labor required.”
All of Dillard’s cropland is watered with overhead irrigation. Rainfall, he says, was more plentiful than usual this past season.
There is a little more value with a melon crop than with a row crop, says Dillard, but there’s also more risk.
“With a produce crop, you’re fluctuating with the market. You can forward contract your cotton, but with melons, it’s an open market and totally dependent on supply and demand.
“This is not a get-rich-quick situation. It’s just a matter of trying to utilize your land more efficiently. We prep the land for melons, and then all we have to do is come back in and plant cotton. We’re not prepping the land a second time, and we have some residual fertilizer from the melon crop.
“We’ll pull a tissue sample, but primarily, we’re hitting it hard with ammonium nitrate as we normally would do with cotton.”
There’s no science to intercropping or handbook to follow because it’s still a learning process, says Dillard.
“We’re supposed to be stewards of the land, so we’re trying to utilize a system that helps us in that regard.
“My recommendation to those trying it for the first time is that your first priority should be your first crop, and the other one will take care of itself.
“As soon as you know you’re finished with a field, you need to be taking it out because you know it’s stressed. But after you side-dress and water the cotton, it’ll come out of that stage and you can start to set a good crop.”
Dillard has worked closely with his county agent Brian Tankersley on the intercropping system.
Tankersley says that previous research with five growers has revealed that cantaloupe and watermelon yields were comparable to the yields of those same crops when grown alone.
Melon harvest did not damage young cotton plants, and cotton planting did not delay melon harvest, he says.
In several locations, cotton has yielded more than 1,100 pounds per acre in the intercropping scenario, says Tankersley. Also, in 2010 and 2011, economic returns and the profitability of cotton compared to late-planted grain sorghum was very positive toward cotton inter-cropping.
Researchers continue to evaluate weed control management and pesticide compatibility issues.